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Usability Issue Contributes to Election Confusion

Florida Voters Sue Over Ballot Design

The ballot for West Palm Beach and other sections of Florida was described as confusing, prompting complaints from several hundred voters that they may have accidentally voted for Pat Buchanan when they had intended to vote for Al Gore. Being primarily a perceptual issue, in addition to those who have filed complaints there may be many who made the mistake without being aware of it. The exact number of affected votes cannot be known.

The Problem

The reported problem with the ballot design was that voters wishing to vote for the second candidate on the list actually needed to punch the third hole on the form, with the second hole designating Buchanan.

This problem was said to have been compounded by having had a sample ballot distributed in advance which looked visually similar but had two columns for the punch holes, one for each side of the listings. In the sample ballot, a punch in the second hole from the top would have indicated a vote for Gore.

Another contributing factor may be the age of the majority of those who have submitted the complaint: the affected counties have a disproportionate number of retired people. With a demographic in that age range, a designer would do well to take vision anomalies into account.

Somewhere in Florida a government worker with a copy PageMaker is having a very bad day.

20/20 Hindsight

As a part of the design process, the proposed layout for this ballot was submitted to Florida state officials as well as authorities in both parties The design apparently met with approval, but there is no indication in the press thus far that anyone in the review process has a background in usability, nor even that such considerations were even explicitely part of the review.

Most usability professionals would likely agree that reliance on "managerial review" without direct user testing is unlikely to yield truly useful results. With any design deliverable, the review process and the user testing process serve very different purposes, with the participants of each looking for very different things. Moreover, few managers have the background in user-centered design to even begin to anticipate user needs, let alone be able to conduct objective user testing.

If you've ever done usability for large organizations, you know how it goes with "managerial review": each stakeholder is looking only for specific aspects which are important to them (spelling, font size, visual prominence), and without explicitely calling usability issues to their attention they are unlikely to consider such things on their own.

In the absence of user testing or even heuristic evaluation, as with many areas of design the format of ballots in Florida is supported by a set of published guidelines. Like the Human Interface Guidelines for Macintosh and Windows operating systems, exisiting documentation on a system anticipates common design questions and attempt to provide solutions in advance based on current research. In Florida, the guidelines would appear to anticipate the potential ambiguity of a layout with two facing pages, as they are said to suggest a single-column layout which places the punch hole in a consistent position to the right of each candidate.

Legal specialists are said to be revewing the ballot design for its compliance with the specifications, but it doesn't appear that any usability professionals have yet been employed in that review.

Preventative Measures for Next Time

Given how rarely any form undergoes formal usability testing (the IRS reportedly tests some form designs, but I'm not familiar with such evaluations for other government agencies), it may not be reasonable to assert that a need for formal user tests should have been identified by the design team, no matter how desirable it may appear in retrospect.

But as with any system, adhering to existing standards will almost always server the end user well. If the ballot is indeed a departure from guidelines suggesting a single-column design, it is less interesting to me whether or not the guidelines carry any legal weight than that they appear to be good ones, recognizing the importance of the two core principles of good interface design: consistency and simplicity. Such principles become especially important in systems used only infrequently, as the user has little chance to acclimate to any inconsistencies within the interface. A ballot system used only once every two years.

In the absence of guidelines, researching other good designs would provide a good solution. Most other counties across Florida and through the most of the US use a single-column format, obviating the issue of confusion over the two-column layout altogether.

We don't yet know if the number of votes in question may turn out to be significant enough to make the difference in this Presidential, but with the current lead only 215 votes apart as of this writing the real impact is unknown.

No matter how this issue is resolved, no single event has brought as much visibility to a usability problem as this one, and it is perhaps the strongest argument our profession has seen for the importance of user testing.

More Info

For a little background in design considerations for ballots, I couldn't find any of the Florida state guidelines online, but I did find this interesting snippet from the Vermont Commission to Study Instant Runoff Voting. (If you happen to have a URL for Federal or Florida state ballot design guidelines, please drop me a note and I'll add it here.

For the general news info, see these stories at MSNBC.com and CNN.com.

There's a great take on this usability angle added late today at AskTog.com.

This article by Dan Briklin has one of the most detailed usability discussions on the matter.

The issue is also the cover story at Jakob Nielson's UseIt.com.

Larry Magid's article at Upside covers the usability aspect as well.

And this article from the Sun-Sentinal quote Buchanan as supporting the suggestion that the ballot design played a role in the number of votes he received in affected counties.

This article from Salon says that county official knew about ballot confusion by the middle of election day and distributed a memo to workers about it.

Dr. Greg Adams of Carnegie Mellon posted this statistical analysis to illustrate the scope of the problem.

John Marden, a statistics professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, posted this interactive Java applet which further shows the broad variance.

Still not convinced that usability can play such a critical role in the outcome of significant events? Check out Tog's article "When Interfaces Kill", describing just one of many examples how good interface design, in hardware or software, can even make the difference between life and death.




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